Catholic Vitamins: Servant Leadership

Father John Putka is a holy and long-term priest friend from our days in Estes Park, Colorado. That isn’t where Father is from – he just has seved there in the parish for 25 years and more during summers. Father Putka’s primary role in earlier years is that he has been the head of the Political Science Department at the University of Dayton in Ohio. As an informed educator and well-known commentator, he has been on Fox News, CNN and many other venues. He also has served as a featured chaplain for Legatus, the Catholic charitable organization made up of CEO’s and highly placed executives in large organizations.

Recently, the incoming House Majority Leader John Boehner asked Fr. Putka to deliver a reflection for the incoming members. This reflection is provided to readers (& listeners) to Catholic Vitamins courtesy of Fr. John.


When Thomas Jefferson began drafting the Declaration of Independence, he faced a seemingly impossible task:  in effect, he was being asked to write a legal brief to justify treason, including armed rebellion, against the British government.    He appealed to the only law that trumped all human legislation, the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Our nation’s birth certificate affirms that our rights  come not from a Congress or a court or a charter,  but rather that We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

It is fitting that we have just heard readings from sacred Scripture that help place in proper context the meaning of law and the vocation of legislators whom we the people have called to be public servants, humble before God and His law.  In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., explained that not all laws are the same:

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”   The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that  “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now,  what is the difference between the two?  How does one determine when a law is just or unjust?  A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,  an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.

Our second reading talked about the many different gifts which legislators bring to their public service.  Each has personal values and judgments of conscience, seeking to act with firmness in the right  as God gives us to see the right,  in the words of Lincoln.  To serve humbly, seeking to do what is right and just, before God and in conscience, is not an easy thing.  The crucible of the legislative process has tested many a conscience, producing  profiles in courage as well as cowardice.

In 1523,  Sir Thomas More was elected Speaker of the House of Commons.  St. Thomas More is the patron saint of statesmen, politicians and lawyers.  In Robert Bolt’s magnificent play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More is being pressured to accept a law judged immoral and unjust by his conscience.  When asked how he can allow his conscience to obstruct his public duties, he responds:

I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

As we inaugurate the 112th Congress, we challenge all involved in the legislative process to humbly accept our country’s call to service and to use all of their many gifts and talents for the promotion of what is just and good.  Let your service be such that when you have completed your work you can take your leave in words that paraphrase the final statement of St. Thomas More:  “I  have been the people’s good servant.  But God’s first.”

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